Marion Cotillard. Audrey Tautou. Charlotte Gainsborough. What have they all got in common? Well, they’re all French, they’re all beautiful and they’re all older than me. Not that you would necessarily know that by looking at them. These girls look good. How is it that they’ve aged so gracefully? Well, I think I’ve cracked their code. It’s not about beauty treatments or intensive exercise regimes. It’s not about having personal stylists and personal trainers. It’s not even about having money and living a comfortable lifestyle. Ok, it’s potentially a little of all of those things, but do you know what else all those ladies have in common?
They’ve all lived in Paris.
With article deadlines creeping up on me and a few work commitments to look after, I took a few days off from volunteering with refugees to clear the decks. I took on the struggling writer role and got to work. And if you must work while you’re away, well there’s probably no better place to do it than in Paris.
I once watched an interview with Kristin Scott Thomas and she believed that her life was richer for living in Paris. By interview, of course, I mean she was Top Gear’s star in a reasonably priced car (let’s not run away with ourselves by assuming I have high brow tv viewing habits). If I grow up to be a fraction as fabulous as Kristin Scott Thomas, I think I’d be pretty pleased with myself.
Given a recent birthday, getting older is probably on my mind more than at other times of the year. I’ll be honest, I dread birthdays. I am Peter Pan. That is, until my back gives out or my knees weaken, or I have to take a nap on a Sunday because I had a ‘late one’ the night before. I scoff in the face of blood pressure, but blood pressure scoffing back is quite a different story. What happened to me? How did I suddenly find myself in my thirties? Yesterday, I was seventeen, wasn’t I?
So, in order to accept my ageing self, I have decided to take advantage of my time in Paris and to adopt the Kristin Scott Thomas school of thought. If I must grow old(er), then I will do it gracefully. And I will do it in Paris. Here’s how:
Eat All The Croissants
…and Pain au Chocolat, and bagettes, and macarons. Hey, why not go for the pastries and the milky breads while you’re at it. Your waistline will not thank you for it, but it will make you happy and right now, that’s what you’re going for.
I know that I will hate myself for saying that in a few weeks time when my jeans are tighter and my rolls are rollier, but I’m trying to live in the moment. And there are lots of delicious croissants in this particular moment. And croissants make me happy. Croissant croissant croissant. It’s even a beautiful word.
The French have a great attitude towards bread. There’s a tradition among Parisiens to rip the top off their bagette and eat it before they leave the boulangerie (bakery). I like this tradition. Another one is to buy two bagettes while they’re at it because by the time they get home, there will be one in their hand and one in their belly.
They don’t seem in the slightest bit concerned about carbohydrates or gluten and they take their bread products very seriously. There are awards for the best bagette in Paris and the prize for the winning boulangerie is to be the official bagette supplier to the President of France for the following year. I ate a bagette from a boulangerie in Montmartre that has held the title twice. Let’s just say that President Hollande is a lucky, lucky man.
Find your happy place.
Let’s be honest, Paris is full of happy places. Beautiful galleries, museums, art, literature, boating, architecture, incredible bridges, perfectly manicured gardens, more churches than there are saints, the world’s greatest fashion and shopping, perfumes, boulangeries, patisseries, cheese, wine… so much wine! If you can’t find a happy place in Paris, then I hate to tell you my friend, but you are possibly in a lot of trouble.
I found a few, and some of those surprised me, but by far my happiest place was at Shakespeare and Company, the world famous book shop opposite Notre Dame cathedral which has earned its place in european literary history.
It’s not exactly Paris’ hidden gem. When I went to visit, I watched as a bus load of Japanese tourists took each other’s photos outside on the iconic bench before scampering off back to their bus, delighted with themselves. Others came and went and I watched for quite a while, amazed at how few people actually went inside. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a busy little place, but nowhere near as busy as you would expect from the masses of camera wielding holiday makers gathering outside.
Once inside, you could almost forget about the tourists. The air was heavy with history and the memories of all those who have stepped through that door. There was a kind of quiet reverence usually reserved for libraries and churches. And it is a pretty shop. There are little alcoves and crannies to get lost in, benches to sit and read, old typewriters and bookshelves and proper old ladders for reaching those high shelves. It’s brilliantly stocked with old and new titles in all genres. There’s a delightful little kids’ corner furnished and decorated with enough personality of its own that you could imagine it whispering to the children, inviting them in and promising them a world of adventure, magic and a lifetime of company between the pages of the books inside.
There’s a piano to be played if you so wish – and hopefully, if you can. This is not a ‘chopsticks’ kind of establishment. There’s a resident cat who lay curled up happily in his bed, half-watching the snap happy customers blatantly ignoring signs prohibiting photography – including this camera wielding holiday maker (sorry management!)
I could have gotten lost somewhere in there, slipped away into the smell of the books. I whipped my book out of my bag and sat for just a little while. I joined the cat and curled up in a quiet corner beneath the signs welcoming you to do so (thanks management!), and I enjoyed a kind of contentment that you just don’t experience all that often.
It shaped the rest of my day. In fact, it shaped the rest of my stay in Paris. My notebook made a reappearance that evening and my mind became busy with the things I like my mind to be busy with. I did what I love to do best. I started to write.
This is not a piece of advice I would normally give as I appreciate creativity in photography. That said, I discovered that there is some wisdom in setting your camera to auto-focus. When I imported my Paris photos to my computer, I realised that most of them were out of focus. They had seemed perfect to me when I took them. They looked perfectly in focus on the camera.
I had my eyes tested last summer and am wearing new glasses and lenses with the up to date prescription. I was also wearing them when I took all of those photographs. So, I see two options here. I can admit that my sight is deteriorating rapidly and that it’s gotten worse since the summer, but that’s what happens to old ladies, not to young and free spirited girls such as myself. So, I will opt for the alternative – I will gloss over it and I will set my camera to autofocus. Any soft focus photographs from now on can be blamed on Canon and Canon only. Voila! Problem sorted
Say your prayers
A strange one for me, but oddly comforting. One of my happy places in Paris was the Sacre Coeur. I’m not a religious person, but fully respect everybody’s right to practice any religion they choose. I was surprised with how drawn I was to the place. Growing up a catholic in Ireland, I guess there’s no avoiding the sacred heart, but here I was choosing to visit the Basillica of the Sacred Heart. That’s rare for me. I went three times. I think it’s one of my favourite places in Paris.
I have family, friends and neighbours who lead religious lives and I’m sure they’d approve of including prayers in a list of ways to grow old(er) gracefully. They are some of the most content and happy people I know. Maybe there’s something in it. Now, I’m not saying I’m going to go off and join the nuns, nor am I suggesting that anyone else should. I’m just saying that I felt very at peace there over the past few days, so if you’ve got something you believe in or that brings you peace, you should do your spiritual thing. And if you’re doing your thing in Paris, there are approximately a billion places that invite you and welcome you in, so there’s something for everyone.
Get your bling on.
The Eiffel Tower is the ultimate in tacky, but isn’t it great? Unleash the diva in you and watch it sparkle. Every hour, on the hour, it goes full-bling. Rather than averting your eyes and labelling it an eyesore, get in the spirit and remember the little girl in you who wanted diamonds and sparkles (Yes, even you boys!). Say ‘Ooh’ and ‘Aah’ and snap all the pictures so you can dazzle your facebook and instagram friends with the glitzy lifestyle you now lead. (Feel free to follow on those links!)
And if, like me, the little girl in you wasn’t a bit interested in bling, but more into lego and mechano and climbing on things, then spend your time gazing at the structure and working out exactly how you can build your own Eiffel Tower when you get home.
But I’d suggest you don’t try to climb it. Not only would you be in trouble with the heavily armed military strolling around frightening everyone, but you might also do further damage to that back or those knees. Remember, you’re trying to grow older gracefully, not stupidly.
Avoid the Metro Police.
Ok, they’re not Police per sé, and they’re not as scary as the military guys, but the Metro officials make quite an intimidating impression. And they’re horrible. If you want to grow old(er) gracefully, it’s best to limit your involvement with them and any potential you may have for violent outbursts.
Let me explain.
I jumped out of the bed (almost literally, remember I’m spritely and young at heart) when the alarm went of at 6.30am. Sunrise at the Eiffel Tower. It doesn’t get much better than that. Today was going to be a good day. I grabbed my camera and I slipped out into the pre-dawn winter morning.
The Metro wasn’t busy yet, I was just ahead of rush hour. I took it as a good sign. I had a mental list of all that I was going to achieve today. I had a lot of work to get done, but if you must work, there are few places better than Paris. A writer friend had sent me a list of all the best cafés to sit and write. I planned to make my way through that list.
But first, I wanted photographs of the Eiffel Tower at sunrise. I was busy hoping for clear skies as I left the train and made my way to the exit of the Trocadero Metro station with 20 minutes to spare until the first sign of the sun was due to crack the horizon.
But Metro Hitler was not on my side. She was a scary looking, manly kind of woman who looked like her only joy in life was derived from ruining other people’s days. It turned out that was very likely to be true. It seems that the weekly travel card I had paid for in full was only valid if a photograph was attached.
It seems that nobody who works for the Metro thinks it’s necessary to tell you this. They don’t put it on signs. They sell you the card without mentioning it. And yes, there is some small print on the back of the card about it, but at no point do they tell you that you will be fined €35 if you don’t have the picture.
I started with ‘stupid tourist’ replies and assured her I’d get a photo right away, thank you for pointing it out to me.
That wouldn’t do.
I followed up with apologies and buddy-buddy chat.
She still wasn’t satisfied.
In perfect English, she told me that I had to pay the fine, that I had broken the law and that if I didn’t pay on the spot, she was going to call the police.
Now, that was just unnecessary. The claws came out. Her english suddenly wasn’t so perfect when I asked to see her identification. She refused to show it. Her english wasn’t so perfect when I asked for her name so I could make a complaint about her. In fact all language skills were done at that point except for repeated barking of ‘you must pay penalty, you must pay penalty.’
I thought of making a run for it. The penalty was more expensive than buying another weekly pass. My inner 17 year old cursed old me with my old back and my old knees. I’d never make it out of the station. In the unlikely event that I would have jumped the turnstyle, I would have collapsed and possibly gone into heart failure by the time I landed on the other side.
I thought of letting her call the Police. I was in the mood for a fight at this point. But there was 5 minutes left until the sun rose, and dammit, I had gotten out of bed at 6.30am on my holidays for this, so, I bottled out and paid the €35 with a scowl. I did manage to get her ID number and I made sure she knew that I intended to use it.
I blamed her for the cloudy morning and the grey skies. I blamed her for the sun staying hidden and the tower not being as photogenic as I would have liked. When I went to take my camera from my backpack and discovered that the battery was still attached to the charger back in my room, of course that was her fault too. When the pictures just didn’t look the same on my phone, her ID number was cursed loudly. When I realised the tower itself was closed off and that I wouldn’t be able to walk beneath it, well, it’s clear who was at fault and when the wifi in the café I had chosen to work in for the morning wasn’t working, well, that was the final straw.
The bottom line here is that Metro Hitler is responsible for everything that could possibly go wrong in Paris. Obviously. So, to avoid the stress of minor nuisances, you’re best give her a wide berth.
Keep putting one foot in front of the other
If nothing else, you need to work off those croissants. With so much to see and do in Paris, though, you won’t notice yourself clocking up the kilometres, because you’ve been looking up at the architecture or click happy at every second building and landmark that you pass. I managed to walk at least 10km most days, while still getting in a good 6 hours work. Everything is beautiful and you’ll want to see as much of the city as you can. You won’t mind going out of your way to pass by pretty gardens or a statue you want to see on your way to a cafe on the other side of the city. It also helps that walking keeps you away from the Metro Police and so helps you to avoid becoming homocidal.
And when the back niggles and the knees groan, just remember that none of it mattters, because regardless of how old you are and regardless of who crosses your path, you’re in Paris. PARIS. And it takes a lot more than the threat of getting old or tight jeans or grumpy public transport officials to turn Paris into an unpleasant experience. So keep walking, keep exploring and just keep going because time will keep ticking on. All you have to do is make the most of it.